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Fantastic Fossils

With preparations underway for new displays showcasing the Horniman's fossil collection, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo gives us a look at some of the stories he hopes to tell.

Developing a new display involves more than simply selecting the most attractive specimens to put on show. Those specimens need to illustrate a story that asks questions, explains ideas or inspires an audience – and usually that story has to be told in very few words.

Exhibition labels have very strict word counts, as there is limited space in a case and interpretation panels need to be easily readable. That means there is never enough space for a curator to say everything that they would like to.

For the geology section of the new Natural History Gallery displays this means explaining how humans came to understand the history and evolution of life and the vast age of our 4.6 billion year old planet by collecting fossils, all in around 300 words, split between two main themes!

The first theme will explore ideas about fossils from before geology was established as a science. There was no real understanding of what fossils represented or how they had formed, so folk tales were created to explain their origins. Stories of dragons, giants, and magical petrifying powers all took at least some inspiration from the fossils that people found in rocks.

Many of the most common fossils have alternative names inspired by folklore – like Devil’s Toenails which are a distinctive type of oyster called Gryphaea, that look like big gnarly claws.

Thunderbolts are the internal supports (guards) of squid-like animals called Belemnites. They get their name from their shape and because they can often found after storms, although rather than falling from the sky, they are washed out of mudstones by heavy rain.

Snakestones are the coiled outer shells of another squid-like group of animals called Ammonites. Many legends make claims that these fossils are snakes that have been turned to stone by the action of a local saint; from St Hilda in Whitby to St Keyne in Somerset.

To support this folklore, some people would carve snake heads onto the ammonites.

During the 17th Century, comparison of fossils against parts of living species started to uncover their true nature. Enlightenment thinkers like Fabio Colonna and Nicholas Steno realised that triangular stones called glossopetris or tongue stones found in rocks were actually shark teeth that had somehow been turned to stone.

This sort of increased understanding slowly led to superstitious interpretations of nature being replaced by a more robust scientific knowledge, which allowed exciting new discoveries to be made about the world... (to be continued)

Hot Stuff at the Horniman

Wes, our Head of Horticulture, shows us how the Gardens team got on when they tried growing some of the hottest chillies around.

Growing chillies is cool. It’s easy, and loads of fun, especially if they’re the proper hot ones!

Earlier in the year the Gardens team at the Horniman ordered a selection of seeds to grow our own plants, including the notorious ‘Trinidad Scorpion’ and the evil ‘Carolina Reaper’, currently the hottest varieties in the world. Gardens Keeper Alex and I are particularly fond of a hot chilli so it was all for a bit of fun rather than producing a bespoke display for the Gardens.

Seeds were sown in March in a heated greenhouse, germination rates were good and they were then potted on into 3.5in pots, they grew well over the summer: chilli plants love heat, lots of sun and regular feeding, and as a result we grew some magnificent plants that produced a lot of fruit.

It was about this time we learnt about Spitalfields City Farm’s Annual Festival of Heat from Amy in our Learning team. Amy arranged for us to have a stall on the day and display some of our plants including the world’s hottest, the Carolina Reaper. The idea was to showcase our plants and advise visitors how to grow and care for theim. We also wanted to know if there were any brave volunteers to try some fruit....there weren’t, apart from Gardens Keeper Alex who took one for the team - literally!

It was a great day and really well organised event by the guys at Spitalfields.

In October we harvested all our remaining fruit and Horniman Café Chef Jason is producing our very own chilli chutney which will be available to buy in the Café and at our Farmers’ Market held every Saturday on the Bandstand Terrace.

We look forward to seeing you there.

The Islington Twins and Ibeiji

Assistant Curators Tom and Johanna share the story of another behind the scenes visit and reveal some of our collections objects representing 'twinness'.

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a visit from the charming, stylish and erudite Chuka and Dubem Okonkwo, aka Chet and Joe, aka The Islington Twins. Well known on the London fashion, fine art and general culture circuit Chet and Joe make a big impression even before you meet them: they are identical twins, who more often than not dress identically.

Chet and Joe’s parents come from Onitsha, a city in Southern Nigeria. They told us how:

In Onitsha…twins are considered a double blessing. If they are identical twins, their parents are considered to be extremely lucky. We've always found the jubilant reaction from Africans who meet us in London peculiar. Westerners are excited with the idea of seeing 'two peas in a pod' (we don't believe there's such a thing), and curious about whether we feel each other's pain. Africans tend to bless us and our parents. Over the years we've been blessed by many strangers.

At the Horniman we have a collection of ibeiji twin figures, and other objects from around the world associated with ‘twinness’, which we were keen to share with Chet and Joe. Ibeiji are very moving objects, made on the sad occasion of the death of a twin at or shortly after birth. They are traditionally said to hold the soul of the twin, cared for by the family in the same way one might care for a loved-one. Some of our examples show signs of the careful attention once bestowed upon them, with marks where they have been gently and repeatedly rubbed.

We wanted to show Chet and Joe some light-hearted objects too. Since they are known for their love of English clothing and can at times cut a dapper dash we shared some of our favourite fashion items made in Nigeria, yet very British indeed. These included a strange little model of a District Officer in horn-rimmed glasses, a smart little jacket, a pith helmet and a nice little pipe. It is the work of Thomas Ona Odulate, a well known Yoruba artist who made fun of colonial administrators through such models between 1900 and 1950.

Chet and Joe were only at our stores for a couple of hours, but they managed to say something positive and sometimes even inspiring to almost everyone working there. We were left with the feeling that we had met two very unusual and rather wonderful people.

Volunteer Rocks

We’ve previously blogged about preparations to uncover our fossil collection in a new display, but selecting the specimens that will go on show has only been made possible by the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Steve Smith has been volunteering at our Study Collections Centre for over three years, working on over a hundred thousand fossils in an extraordinary hidden collection.

In 2011, I attended a visit to the Horniman Museum and Gardens organised by the Open University to see the fossil collection on display in the balcony and the mineral and rock collection in a side room. We were met by Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, who introduced us to the Geology collection. I had recently retired from lecturing in Electronics and had only a scant memory of the geology degree I did many years ago, but the visit re-vamped my earlier interest, so I asked Paolo, quite innocently, whether there might be a need for a volunteer to document any of the fossil specimens not on display. He told me that the museum catalogue was incomplete for a separate fossil collection held in store. Maybe there was a chance for me.

The museum initiation process was extensive. Before starting, there were many training programmes to be done including an introduction to the main collections and displays, health & safety, and correct specimen handling. I was particularly interested in the introduction to the musical instrument display, having been a professional drummer years before. But my work was not to be at the museum; I would be situated at the offsite Study Collections Centre (SCC) instead.

Paolo showed me the fossil collection I would be working on, which houses a jaw-dropping 175,000 specimens in over 600 drawers, trays and boxes. All of this in two tiny dehumidified basement rooms. This was to be my work area, once a week, for quite some time.

This massive collection of fossils was acquired by the museum on 1 February 1989 from the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. The original collector, Walter H. Bennett was a mining geologist who collected fossils from world-wide locations, but mostly from the UK. Many fossils are in an excellent condition showing much fascinating detail and may be comparable to some in the national collections.

The notes given in the existing database for this collection were inadequate; often naming just the group of animals the specimen came from, together with some place names and the geological age. In some cases there was no information at all.

We made a working copy of the database in a spreadsheet so that I could easily add to or correct any wrong entries. Working through the collection, I found many items with only a collection location and so had to assess the animal group (phylum) and, if possible, order or family so we knew which species were represented.

At first, the task was daunting, but each new drawer opened up a new set of ancient life-forms with their own characteristics. Some drawers have over 50 items in tiny snap bags to be prised open so the label can be read. This tested my patience.

There are pieces of black shale with stringy marks on them resembling razor-edged wire called graptolites.

As well as trilobites, both whole and in fragments.

There were also ammonites and shell fish of every description.

One drawer is full of samples from the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone with insects, fish and ancient lobster impressions.

Another drawer has fossils from the Cambrian Age Burgess Shale, giving an insight into the very beginnings of more complex animal life-forms on Earth.

The aim of this work is to complete the documentation as far as possible, so this large fossil collection appears correctly on the museum database and is available, with photographs, for anyone doing research or merely having an interest in fossils and their evolution.

Collections such as this have been important in helping us understand the evolution of animals on Earth and the changing environmental conditions in which they died out or survived. They enable us to link rocks from various world-wide outcrops to their former locations before ancient continents broke up and drifted apart, and provide evidence for past mass extinctions. For example, we know know one such event, the Permo-Trias, left only 4% remaining from the previous animal populations: all current life has descended from that 4%!

New discoveries each year further extend our knowledge of earth’s remarkable history. And who knows, while pushing the frontiers of knowledge ever forward, I may even get to blast away on some drums in the collection. Maybe form a new band – playing rock, of course!

Adventures in the Costume Stores

Jack Davy is part of the Horniman's Collections People Stories team, working to carry out a review of our vast and varied Anthropology collections. Here, he explains the importance of photographing objects and uncovers some gems from the stores.

Over the last few months, as part of the Collections People Stories project, I have been working one day a week at the Horniman stores on the collections of European and Asian costume.

The Horniman has an enormous, diverse and fascinating collection of clothing and textiles from all over the world. Many of these objects are inherently fragile and therefore can only be put on display for short periods of time.

Thankfully, modern technology allows for much greater interaction between the public and these delicate objects, many of which are accompanied by stories of travel, adventure and ingenuity.

This is where I come in.

My role involved taking photographs of costume that can be used to provide a record of the object at a particular point in time. This is useful for a number of reasons:

  • It enables the museum’s curators to send images to experts (many living in far-flung places), who can provide detailed feedback on the costumes. Then these objects can be incorporated into wider narratives of human society that underpin the study and display of anthropology at the museum.
  • These photos will help the museum’s conservation team in the future to compare the photographs to the objects checking for any deterioration or damage over time- a constant concern with these kind of fragile objects.
  • It enables the general public, whether expert or not, to view and interact with these collections remotely.

Both the European and Asian costume collections at the Horniman are remarkably strong, including a diverse array of clothing worn at important festivals and feast days.

If you are interested in learning more, why not explore the Horniman's collections online to discover thousands of objects already reviewed, and let us know what you think. You can also get in touch with the project team on Twitter.

Earl, his stroke and visiting the Horniman

The Horniman regularly hosts visits from the Stroke Association, enabling stroke surviviors and their families to meet and explore the collections. Earl Bent has written a little about his visits to the museum and how they have aided in his recovery.

After having a stroke in December 2013, I spent 2 weeks in the Kings College Hospital Stroke Unit, followed by 6 weeks of occupational therapy home visits to help me regain the use of my right side and my speech. I was visited by Annette Carty who explained the various services offered by the Stroke Association. We spoke about furthering my communication skills which lead to me being introduced to Rachel Morrison who is the Communication Support Coordinator for Lewisham.

One of the services which sounded interesting to me was the communication group that meets on the last Thursday of every month at the world famous Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill, South London.

With trepidation and great anxiety I attended my first meeting. Within the first fifteen minutes, the group along with Rachel made me realise that my initial feelings were not warranted. Although in my personal life I have great support, it was nice to be surrounded by people that have a greater and personal understanding of the impact a stroke has on your life and many issues faced whilst trying to overcome it.

The first meeting consisted of a slow but steady walk around the Horniman Gardens where we looked at and identified the various groups of plants. My personal favourite was the Mint Chocolate Tree! After the walk, we all returned to a room where a lively discussion was had.

The second meeting I attended was about musical instruments and objects pertaining to communication throughout the ages. This included a visit to Music Gallery which houses a vast array of musical instruments. Some were odd looking, some fantastical and some were outright amazing.

My next meeting with the group was to the superb aquarium at the museum.  By now I had found that the partnership between the Stroke Association and the Horniman is of great benefit to Stroke survivors, their families and volunteers. It was because of this that although I did not always feel up to the journey, I pushed myself to attend.

The fourth meeting I attended, the group learnt about the art of communication through gesture and subtle nuances of movement in the body. We were thoroughly entertained by a Lady named Francesca, who is a trained Performing Artist and we looked at various masks and the roles they play in communication in societies. I was paired with Claudette, a fellow stroke survivor, and together we performed a short non-verbal set depicting 3 main gestures: shock, understanding & laughter.

I find myself looking forward to each and every meeting and disappointed when it is over in what seems like no time at all.

Who would have thought that when Frederick Horniman gave the museum to the people of London in 1901 it would become an aid to help in the recovery of stroke survivors.

I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt, that if not for the marriage between the Stroke Association and the Horniman, I would not be able to share this with you!

Uncovering our Fossil Collection

Preparations for new displays in our Natural History Gallery are well underway, and it's time for the team to get together and plan a section which will bring more of the Horniman's wonderful collection of fossils out of storage.

We've blogged about the layout stage before: it's an important step in the development of any display, allowing curators, conservators, designers, technicians and other staff to get together and discuss the finer points of how objects will be installed in the gallery.

Again, the space available in the display cases is carefully marked out, so the exact position of the objects and text panels can be planned.

Many factors need to be considered while planning a new display, meaning that not all final decisions can be taken by curators in advance.

With specimens as large and heavy as some of our ammonites, mounting them safely will be a bit of a challenge for our technicians. Not only will they need to be fastened securely, their size means the shadows they cast on other parts of the display needs to be carefully considered.

Our curators Paolo and Jo needed to make changes to the object choices based on the exhibition team's (and occasionally everyone else's) feedback.

Some hard choices are often made at this stage. This trilobite, despite being declared 'adorable' didn't make the final cut.

The remaining objects are then adjusted to best fit the space and convey information in the clearest way possible.

Once everyone is happy with this first 'draft', each object is given a clear number label which will be visible in layout photographs, so that everyone working on the display can refer back to them and identify even the smallest objects.

Our Conservation team were in attendence too, picking up on which objects need to be treated before going on display. This cut ammonite will need its old education labels removed.

The new Natural History Gallery displays will be ready in March 2015. Be sure to come along and see what treasures have been revealed.

Sam Loves Horniman

Sam and his family are regular visitors to the Horniman. His mum Jess has written a piece for us explaining why Sam especially loves our storytelling sessions and what keeps them coming back.

My son Sam loves visiting the Horniman. Sam is almost five years old, enjoys stories and is bright. He is also physically disabled, uses a wheelchair and is unable to talk.

It is often hard to find places of interest to Sam, and then to access them with him. It can sometimes be difficult to physically get in to the building or to get Sam close to an exhibit that is high up. For a child who struggles to use his hands, some interactive exhibits can be frustrating and boring.

The Horniman is a rare exception. We discovered 'A World of Stories' events at the museum when Sam was two and have been going regularly ever since. Each Sunday, a storyteller chooses an item from the museum's collection and uses it as the basis for a story. They are often folktales involving animals and distant lands: 'How the lion got his roar' and other exciting adventures.

Children sit on the floor to gather around the storyteller, meaning that Sam can see from his wheelchair. What he really enjoys in a story is lots of drama and a lively telling, and the tales here never disappoint. While Sam is unable to talk, his chuckles make obvious his enjoyment. Some children lose concentration but Sam is totally focused and is often the child laughing loudest and longest.

The only low point is at the end of the session, when Sam often feels sad at the end of the stories. Fortunately, there are lots of other things he finds interesting at the museum, and the whole building is easily navigable with a wheelchair.

He finds the aquarium fascinating and loves to get up close to the insects and fish, which are low enough for him to see from his chair.

He can also use some of the hands-on instruments in the music room and is also able to play the outdoor instruments with a bit of help.

Sam's brother Eli is two and struggles to sit still for but of course there's plenty for him too at the Horniman - particularly stuffed monkeys (his favourite animal) and live crabs.

Read more about Sam's life at Jessica's website, storieswithsam.com.

Wish Full Thinking

In preparation for November's Festival of Lights Late, artist Mary Branson visited the Horniman to record the wishes, hopes and dreams of our staff and visitors.

Mary will use the resulting recordings for her piece 'Wish Full Thinking'. This installation will see hundreds of thousands of specially-prepared white feathers fill the Horniman Conservatory, and visitors invited to walk amongst them while lit with UV light.

The accompanying sound piece will include the many voices captured by Mary at the Horniman, speaking their own wishes, hopes and dreams.

Mary managed to record a range of voices in her afternoon at the museum, including schoolchildren, participants from community groups, general visitors and even some of our staff.

It was wonderful to see the range of wishes expressed, from lengthy monologues and streams of thought to one-liners, from selfless hopes for the happiness for others, to the simple and ubiquitous 'I wish I could fly'.

Listen to the final sound piece amongst the atmospheric setting of Wish Full Thinking in the Horiman Conservatory at Festival of Lights Late, on Thursday 6 November. Tickets are now available online (over 18s only).

A Trip to the Taxidermist

Every now and then some of our handling collection objects need a bit of a spruce up. Maria from our Learning tteam has blogged about taking a few of our taxidermy specimens for some specialist treatment.

One of the things that makes the Horniman so special and enduringly popular with visitors, is that it is one of the few museums where you can actually touch museum objects.

If you’ve ever wondered the exact ratio of bushy to soft in a fox’s tail, (and frankly who hasn’t?) the Horniman is where you can come and find out. We are famous for our Natural History collection and the Nature Base and Hands on Base allow our visitors an opportunity to explore through touch, some of our taxidermy specimens, like those seen behind glass in the gallery.

With hundreds of hands stroking our foxes and badgers, smoothing the plumage of a mallard or two and exploring the knobbly notches of our caiman’s skin, it is little wonder that from time to time we have to spruce up and repair our current specimens, and sometimes even source replacements. While the Horniman has an excellent conservation team on hand, our taxidermy is repaired by a specialist taxidermist offsite.

It was on just such a mission that I found myself and a colleague driving over Battersea Bridge, in the company of not just an A-Z, but with a badger, tawny owl and chicken skeleton in the back. 

Derek Frampton, our taxidermist, can do everything from re-fitting a squirrel’s tail, to ethically sourcing and stuffing a replacement fox for the Handling Collection. He has also been known to spruce up the feathers of an owl, and to make models based on museum specimens and historical records, to recreate extinct species.

Come along to our Sunday Discovery For All sessions to explore some of our taxidermy for yourself, or meet select specimens in the Nature Base.

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